The BBC has opened a consultation on its proposed distribution policy, which would impose seven conditions on third parties that wish to carry its public services. While they may seem superficially reasonable, is there a risk that they will frustrate innovation?

The BBC is required, by agreement with the Secretary of State, to “do all that is reasonably practical” to make its public services, or elements of their content, available in a range of convenient and cost-effective ways. It is also permitted to “impose reasonable conditions under which it will make its output and services available to third parties” and “impose a verification process in relation to the ways in which on-demand programme services are accessed”.

The BBC is required to publish its policies for distribution. Previously, the governors or subsequently the trustees of the BBC would have approved these. The BBC now operates under the regulation of Ofcom and is additionally required to “offer the public services to third parties in response to reasonable requests for supply, except where the BBC has an objective justification for not doing so” and do so on a “fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory basis”.

The BBC has published a draft policy that sets out seven proposed conditions for the distribution of its public services:

  • Prominence — the placement of BBC content and services relative to those of other providers should be in line with audience needs and expectations
  • Editorial Control — the BBC retains editorial control of its content and its placement
  • Branding and Attribution — users should be able to easily identify which content on a platform is provided by the BBC
  • Quality — users should be able to enjoy a high quality experience of BBC content and services
  • Data — the BBC should have access to data about the usage of its services
  • Free Access — users should incur no incremental cost to access BBC content and services
  • Value for Money — arrangements should maximise cost-effectiveness of distribution to the licence fee payer

The BBC says it will require each of these conditions to be met for all content and services that are made available on a particular platform but will consider each case on its individual merits and compliance may be a matter of degree. They do not apply to its commercial activities or programming aimed at audiences outside the United Kingdom.

At first sight these seem like reasonable principles to apply, which of course is the intention.

Yet is it reasonable, for instance, that BBC video-on-demand programming should only be available through the BBC iPlayer?

The BBC says that it will apply this policy on a case-by-case basis and will provide flexible application programming interfaces to enable platforms to integrate metadata to allow programme discovery.

However, it says platforms must allow the BBC adequate curatorial influence over the selection and ordering of its constituent programmes that are presented to users within the interface, so that it can introduce a broad range of public service content to users.

The BBC expects platforms to facilitate the timely and accurate collection of data to enable the BBC to monitor and understand the usage of its content and services. It also expects platforms to facilitate secure sign-in to syndicated BBC services using a BBC account.

One can understand why this is in the interests of the BBC, but is it necessarily in the interest of the public and the continuing innovation of services?

There is provision and a requirement for ‘experimentation’ to allow the BBC to extend the manner in which the BBC distributes its programming, but this appears to be at its own discretion.

The public service broadcasters in Britain have successfully maintained their individual walled gardens with their own admission arrangements. Each operates in its own separate silo.

This allows them to ‘curate’ and cross-promote their own services, which is arguably a benefit to users and in the interests of the public.

However, it imposes user experience restrictions and has frustrated the development of competitive services. Ironically, it even hampers platforms that are supported by broadcasters, like Freeview and Freesat.

Broadcasters are now competing not only with pay-television platforms but also with other aggregators like Amazon and Netflix that offer services that allow easy navigation between programming from different distributors.

Naturally, broadcasters do not want their most popular programming to be promoted through third-party services at the expense of programmes that people would not otherwise discover or want to watch.

There is a deeply held belief that public service broadcasting policy can be used to introduce mass audiences to programming they might not otherwise experience. This serendipity is one of the benefits of broadcasting.

Yet we are now in an age of search and recommendations, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. This can, of course, contribute to an echo chamber of closed feedback that serves to narrow experience. Or it can open up access and expand horizons.

The reality is that users are now freer than ever to watch what they want. Programmes compete with one another for attention, like books on a shelf, where the shelf space is virtually unlimited.

Is it always sensible to group books by publisher and imprint, rather than any other possible categorisation? In some cases it will be, but in others there may be more appropriate methods, like genre. The benefit of virtual collections is that items can be accessed in many different ways. Users may even wish to ‘curate’ their own collections.

The BBC offers an incredible range and quality of output. Perhaps if it had more confidence in its programming it would enable others to make better use of it, rather than insisting that auntie knows best.

The public consultation on The BBC’s Draft Distribution Policy is open until 9 April.